Thursday 21 December 2023

Review by Gary Day of "A Word with Bede" by Neil Curry

At first glance, the title suggests that the Venerable One is being taken on one side to receive advice or admonition in his shell-like. In fact it is an instance of the rich and indeed reverential language at play in this collection which is full of atmosphere, marvels and profundities. The word ‘Word’ simultaneously evokes casual conversation and the Logos itself. The pronoun ‘with’ suggests that Bede and Curry (a nomenclature that suggests a comedy duo) are on equal terms, true companions.

Among others receiving a mention in this meditation on past and present are St Ceolfrith, who looked after Bede from the age of seven, St Hilda of Whitby and Caedmon, regarded as the first English poet, his song a song of creation. Even the Vikings make a brief if bloody appearance, ‘like wolves they tore and slaughtered.’ The assonance nearly bringing those two verbs together is at variance with the frenzied dismemberment of the monks' bodies. This may seem a trivial, even pedantic point, but it touches on one of the main themes of the volume, ‘the fluidity of things,’ how everything is interlinked. This comes across strongly in ‘St Cuthbert’s Beads’ where fossils become beads on a rosary, the scientific and the spiritual meeting in a perfect circle. Another poem, ‘And with a Feather,’ is the most perfect expression of the unity at the heart of things. It is the verbal equivalent of the repeating patterns of Celtic art which have no beginning and no end.

These poems touch not just on history but something deeper, the time of solitude and silence which stretches from the desert to the edge of the expanding cosmos. Every page contains a verbal gem. It is a kind of holy book, not exactly an illuminated manuscript but a source of light nonetheless.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer and the author of several critical works including Literary Criticism: A New History and The Story of Drama. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls as Rain, published by Holland Press, is due out in February

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